- Cleopatra: A Biography by Duane W. Roller
Cleopatra is one of the most significant female figures in recorded history. As heir to the Ptolemaic throne of Egypt in 51 bc, she was the wealthiest and most [End Page 395] powerful Hellenistic ruler of her day. Yet the legacy spawned by her attempts to hold onto both wealth and power in the increasingly Roman-controlled eastern Mediterranean overshadows her accomplishments as the last Ptolemaic ‘king and pharaoh.’ Male-dominated historiography, the victor’s point of view, and the visual and performing arts of the last 500 years have all contributed to the myth of Cleopatra (x, 1), a myth perpetuated in popular culture through film, historical fiction, and even literary biography. The “recension of the myth of Cleopatra” (6) is not the concern of Duane W. Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography; rather, Roller proposes “to create a portrait of Cleopatra based solely on information from the ancient world” (x). As a corrective to the generally misunderstood and unfairly represented persona of this important historical figure (1), Roller’s book is a valuable contribution to Hellenistic scholarship.
As part of the Oxford University Press series Women in Antiquity, Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography takes a broad approach to ancient history and culture and gives equal attention to Cleopatra’s life and her historical times. The book generally follows chronological order. Chapters 1 and 2 cover, respectively, Cleopatra’s ancestry and her Ptolemaic heritage (particularly Ptolemaic involvement with Rome). Roller rightly gives due attention to historical context that is not only relevant to her but absolutely critical for understanding the significance of her reign (32). For example Ptolemy VIII’s visits to Rome in order to strengthen his political position, as well as his appreciation for the advantages of developing a close personal relationship with a prominent Roman, set precedents for Cleopatra VII (42). Chapter 3 covers Cleopatra’s youth and education. Here the focus is on the cultural context, mainly what is known about the Ptolemaic court, since a sheer lack of evidence frustrates any fuller account of Cleopatra’s early years. Speculation is minimal, kept to the realm of possibility given other facts. “[O]ne presumes that she could study at the Library and attend lectures at the Mouseion,” perhaps preferring those of physicians and pharmacologists (45). Roller pays serious attention to Cleopatra’s educational accomplishments, especially to Plutarch’s mention of seven languages—to which must be added her native Greek, Egyptian, and Latin—and to “the obscure notices” of her writing (50). In Cleopatra’s cultural milieu, “literary output was expected of someone in her position” (50). Roller argues that fragments of a work Cosmetics indicate more of a medical and pharmacological bent than a simple discussion of female adornment. He notes that Plutarch’s list of languages has a geographical progression, from south to northeast, of places historically associated with the Ptolemaic dynasty, which strongly suggests that Cleopatra acquired knowledge of these and likely other languages (Plutarch’s “many others as well”) for diplomatic purposes (48). The “unusually well educated” (43) Cleopatra was evidently less vulnerable [End Page 396] to potentially dangerous factions at court than her rival brother Ptolemy XIII, who was said to have had little education (51).
The years 51 to 47 bc, when Cleopatra VII became queen of Egypt, first—significantly—jointly as consort to the younger Ptolemy XIII, are covered in Chapter 4. Roller claimsthat at the point when Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48 bc, Cleopatra was “marginalized” (in exile) and “no one took her seriously” (60). Thus her swift reversal of circumstances to become sole ruler following the elimination of her brother during the Alexandrian War is indeed remarkable, the more so because it was largely her own doing, beginning with her most ingenious return from exile and self-presentation to Caesar. Roller’s earlier statement that this was one of a number of familiar episodes that “simply did not happen” (7) is somewhat misleading: the oft-called “carpet,” he here argues, was rather a bedsack, but...